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Indian workers find ally in US politicos

The plight of Indian workers in Mississippi has caught the eye of American politicians. HT Correspondent reports. "I am man" | Pics
Hindustan Times | By HT Correspondent, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 13, 2008 10:35 AM IST

The plight of Indian workers in Mississippi has caught the eye of American politicians.

George Miller, a respected US Congressman who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, has sought information from the Bush administration on allegations that several hundred Indians working in shipyards in Mississippi and Texas have been subjected to torture and human trafficking.

In a letter sent on Tuesday to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Congressman Miller requested copies of reports from departmental investigations of Signal International, the workers’ employer.

The letter comes after Hindustan Times reported on the inhuman conditions that compelled 120 Indian workers to walk out from Signal’s shipyard last week. After the HT report, the Ministry of Overseas Indians Affairs suspended the licences of Dewan Consultants and S Mansour & Company, Mumbai-based companies hiring Indian workers for Signal, allegedly charging them up to $20,000 for temporary H2B visas.

Late on Wednesday night, IANS reported that Signal general manager Darrell Snyder had met NB Jhambulkar, the protector of emigrants at Mumbai, and said the protesting Indians had never been promised permanent US residency. Snyder later arrived in New Delhi to meet senior officials in the ministry.

Congressman Miller, 63, was elected chairman of the Education and Labor Committee in January 2007. He is the leading advocate in Congress on education, labour, the economy and the environment. Miller’s bill to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour was one of the first bills passed by the new Democratically-led Congress and signed into law.

In his letter, Miller has urged the Labour Secretary to provide him all the H2-B guest worker applications and certifications for the past five years—including supporting documents and correspondences submitted to either the Labour Department or any other US agency for the companies in question. The companies are Signal International, Dewan Consultants, Five Star Contractors, Knight Marine and Industrial Services, Eagle Staffing, Massey Contracting, S Mansour & Company and North America Labor Service.

“Congressman Miller's letter is an acknowledgement that the reality of the guest worker programme is often disastrous for workers,”' said Saket Soni, Director of the New Orleans Workers' Centre for Racial Justice, which is helping the workers.

Meanwhile, a delegation of Indian guest workers from the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity has demanded a meeting with Indian Ambassador to the United States Ronen Sen. The delegation handed over the letter to diplomats K.P. Pillai and Alok Pandey, dispatched to New Orleans by Ambassador Sen.

"We need an immediate decision by the ambassador that he will meet with us. The lives of hundreds of workers are at stake. They've packed their bags, but they don't know where they'll go," said Rajan Pazhambalakode, a former worker at US marine construction company Signal International.

In their letter to Ambassador Sen, the workers wrote: "We have spoken with the Cabinet Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, the Honourable Vyalar Ravi, and he has directed us to you. … We request that you meet with us immediately so that we may brief you on our situation and discuss how the Indian Government will ensure both the US and the Indian governments conduct appropriate investigation of the criminal activity and ensure the safety of our families and ourselves.”

The letter requested a response from Ambassador Sen no later than Wednesday 4 pm EST.

According to sources in the Indian Embassy, it was unlikely Ambassador Sen would be meet the delegation of workers within the deadline they have specified.

“They are in New Orleans and the Ambassador is in (Washington) DC,” an Indian diplomat told HT.

The sources confirmed that Pillai, a former Regional Passport Officer in charge of the Delhi passport office, and Pandey had been sent to New Orleans by the Ambassador. They are expected to file a report on their observations once they return, the sources said.

When the Signal workers first began to organize last year, the company retaliated with armed guards, driving worker Sabulal Vijayan to slit his wrist in a suicide attempt.

"On March 9, 2007, I was in the hospital after I slit my wrist," Mr Vijayan told the consular officers. "Where were you?"

Mr Vijayan had contacted Mr Pillai, a diplomat at the Indian consulate in Houston, after Signal attempted to deport him and other organizers in March 2007. Mr Pillai responded by meeting with the company, but not the workers. In the meeting today, the delegation expressed deep disappointment with Mr. Pillai's failure to answer their pleas for help.

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